VISTA, Calif. — “I tell my participants all the time: don’t tell me, show me.”
Steve Dilley has been at the helm of the Veterans Art Project, or VETART, in Vista since 2009, offering free classes to veterans and their families.
“They think of art and finger painting. I’m like, ‘no, dude, this is art and 500 pounds of clay,'” Dilley said to FOX 5.
Both veterans and civilian instructors teach four to seven classes a week in ceramics, from mold making to mosaics, to mediums like glass casting. But there is so much more to see than what meets the eye.
“This is arts, but arts-based wellness,” Dilley said.
The program specializes in helping military vets transition into civilian life through art. It’s a hands-on way for veterans to express themselves.
Art therapist and civilian instructor Jill Brenegan says what’s going on inside a veteran inevitably comes out through their artwork and when it does, she’s there.
“There’s a lot of pounding and being kind of rough with clay, so you can get the aggression out,” Brenegan said. “That’s when, as an art therapist, I have to be mindful of what they’re sharing, because they may or may not be aware of it, and that’s the opportunity that I have to process what is actually happening in that art piece.”
Brenegan has been working with members of the military for 13 years and considers this a “5,000-square-foot safe space” for participants to heal the traumas they may have suffered overseas.
“Sometimes things come up in a group and it’s nice because then they share it, it allows others to feel safe to share their stories as well,” Brenegan said.
Not only do they build a sense of community at VETART, but they’re also building physical skills that can have a direct impact on their mental health.
When throwing clay, you have to learn how to be grounded and center yourself — a lesson veterans can really benefit from.
“I have PTSD, so coming here relaxes me and puts me in a trance when I’m doing a piece,” Gilbert Otero, a Vietnam War veteran, said to FOX 5.
Otero, who was a Marine for six years, is a newcomer. He has been making chevrons for all of his Marine Corps buddies.
Anthony Loboue, a proud member of the U.S. Army airborne infantry, has been coming to VETART for years. At 81, he still jumps out of planes every birthday. But he says nothing gives him the high he gets creating.
“I do know, from personal experience, that art-making pumps dopamine,” Loboue said.
That chemical reaction — or calming effect — is what all of these veterans say keeps them coming back. And it’s also launching careers.
Rocio Villanueva, an Iraq combat vet, went back to school and is now majoring in ceramics.
And vet turned instructor, Reggie Green, is now selling his art.
“I go to their popup art shows and I get to show my art,” Green said. “And just seeing the reactions of people give me joy.”
It’s a joy they all found at VETART, transforming clay, that transformed their lives.